Civil Rights Across the African Diaspora We continue our series with a roundtable discussion on the fight for social change across the African Diaspora. Are there parallels with America's Civil Rights Movement? Have we influenced each other?
NPR logo

Civil Rights Across the African Diaspora

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Civil Rights Across the African Diaspora

Civil Rights Across the African Diaspora

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Civil rights is phrase that calls up images of protesters in the cells and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. marching on Washington. At least it does in the United States, but what about other nations, especially ones that are part of the African Diaspora? Are there parallels with America's civil rights movement and have we influenced each other?

For more, we've got Peter Takirambudde. He directs the African division of human rights watch in New York City, and Keisha-Khan Perry assistant professor of Africana studies and anthropology at Brown University. Welcome.

Dr. KEISHA-KHAN PERRY (Assistant Professor, Africana Studies and Anthropology, Brown University): Thank you very much.

CHIDEYA: So, Keisha, let me start with you. Is it correct to use the term civil rights to describe black activism outside of America?

Dr. PERRY: Thank you. Thank you for asking that question. I think it is important to talk about black civil rights when talking about South America and in the case that I studied in Brazil. Primarily because blacks in Brazil have spoken on their rights to citizenship into similar ways that blacks in the U.S. have spoken about and fought for right to citizenship here. So I think in that sense, yes, it is correct to talk about civil rights.

CHIDEYA: We recently featured a documentary that talked about affirmative action and education in Brazil. Give us a little bit more of a sense of what's really going on there as people are assessing race now as opposed to how race was dealt with in the past.

Dr. PERRY: Well certainly unlike popular perceptions of Brazil that there are no concrete definitions of blackness, certainly, the black population have -not just accepted, but also realized and have come to terms with, not only with their blackness throughout history, but certainly with their rights as blacks to certain resources to include education.

I think that there has been much resistance to affirmative action programs in Brazil by reactionaries who believe that it's difficult to determine who is black in Brazil. But for the black population who recognize that they have been historically excluded from this institution, they know that it is necessarily to - necessary to include quotas as part of state-sponsored equality efforts.

CHIDEYA: Peter, how does the issue of civil rights or even the definition of civil rights fit into what you do as human rights watch?

Dr. PETER TAKIRAMBUDDE (Executive Director, African Division of Human Rights Watch, New York City): Well, there's a tremendous overlap between the what we'll do in times of a human rights protection and promotion. And the civil rights movement in times of its central objectives, which the - desire fight for freedom, for respect, for dignity, for economic and social rights, and the most particularly of the achievement, establishment of equality under the law. More completely presented in equal rights legislation.

Enough we got today, where most of my work is centered. The continent is undergoing a major reconstruction - reconstruction of the political systems to achieve real freedom. The idea of post-independent - the pre-independent struggle was…

CHIDEYA: Let me just ask you something, Peter. In the United States, a lot of people would associate, for example, South Africa, with a civil rights movement, in part because there was a racial component to that. Many places on the continent have dealt with colonialism and race in that context. When do you call something civil rights? When do you call it human rights? Does the label matter to you?

Dr. TAKIRAMBUDDE: The label doesn't matter to me. Obviously, the context might differ. You are right, that because of the intensity of racial civilization in South Africa made it more akin to the context in the U.S., because of insignificant kind of penetration of the racial minority in South Africa, which was not necessarily the case elsewhere in Africa. So the racial segregation part of the civil rights movement in Africa was not quite compared to the American situation. But…

CHIDEYA: Let me just bring in another participant, another voice here. We've got Gepsie Metellus, executive director for the Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center in Miami, Florida. Welcome.

Ms. GEPSIE METELLUS (Executive Director, Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center, Miami, Florida): Thank you. Thank you, Farai.

CHIDEYA: So we've just been talking a little bit about whether or not there's a difference between civil rights and human rights. Are the terms, to you, in the work that you do with Haitian-Americans interchangeable or distinct?

Ms. METELLUS: I think that in the context of the United States, the terms mean very same thing as they do - as their communities, as color, in particular, other blacks. But when we talk about the human rights or civil rights in the context of Haiti, it's really fundamentally about basic human rights.

CHIDEYA: What's the work that you do specifically?

Ms. METELLUS: In the United States, the Haitian Neighborhood Center serves as a resource, referral and advocacy center for immigrants who all whether very recent arrivals or who've been here for quite a while and don't quite know how to access certain services, certain benefits, opportunities, so on and so forth, and so we're sort of a bridge to a number of community services. We also serve as an institution that strives to help folks integrate fully and into the society, whether that's economically, politically or culturally and otherwise.

CHIDEYA: Now, being Haitian-American yourself, working on human rights, civil rights within the Haitian- American context, maybe you can tell us a little bit about either personally or with people who you know what the difference in perception is from moving from Haiti to the U.S., how you've raised, how you view your rights and your privileges.

Ms. METELLUS: Mm-hmm. I think that as someone who's grown up in the United States, who lives in the United States and who is very much viewed in the same manner that other blacks in the United States are viewed, so when I think of civil rights, I think of the very same issues for which there have been endless struggles and for which there continues to be struggles today. Of course, civil rights for us in the United States might have to take on new interpretations today.

Because I think it's no longer about access to certain services, you know, and the traditional sense of the civil rights movement. Today, I think it - the definition needs to be very broad because there a number of issues - new issues, whether they are education, educational achievement, or whether they're around, you know, who is incarcerated at a greater rate and other kinds of issues that, you know, that challenge us as black people in this country.

So I think, you know, here, my definition I think is in par with the definition that most, if not every other blacks in this country would relate to and would identify. Now, when you refer to civil rights in Haiti, you know, I think that we have to set aside our definitions or maybe agree on what that definition looks like for folks on the ground in Haiti, right? And as I said earlier, I think that civil rights is essentially human rights. And human rights, again, is essentially basic rights, base access to basic needs, basic services, right?

We're not talking about a country where the state has the means, the wherewithal and the might to actually ensure that the basic needs of its citizens are met, right? In the Haitian context, we're talking about a state that doesn't have the means necessarily, that doesn't have all of the infrastructure, that doesn't have all of the institutions through which the people's needs might be met, through which people's quality of life might be improved, so and so.

You're not talking about a state that's willfully neglecting a significant portion of its population although there happens to be a bit of that going on, too. But overwhelmingly, this is a state that's trying to establish itself, trying to spend on itself, trying to consolidate its resources. I don't think that…

CHIDEYA: Let me just jump in on that.

Ms. METELLUS: Mm-hmm?

CHIDEYA: I want to reintroduce our topic. We are talking about social struggle outside of the American civil rights movement - all part of our series on civil rights.

This is NPR's NEWS & NOTES. I am Farai Chideya.

We're just hearing from Gepsie Metellus, executive director for the Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center in Miami, Florida. Also talking to Peter Takirambudde of the African Division of Human Rights Watch in New York City and Keisha-Khan Perry, assistant professor of Africana studies and anthropology at Brown University.

So Keisha-Khan Perry, I'm going to turn back to you about Brazil. When you look at the research that you've done, do you think that Brazilians have looked at the civil rights struggle in the United States for guidance? And how does and doesn't it apply in Brazil?

Dr. PERRY: I think certainly, historically, Brazil is part of the black diaspora network, which is part of an always ongoing process of sharing information and, particularly, political information. So clearly, we need to understand Brazil is part of this context.

Certainly, also, Brazil has been inspired by U.S. civil rights movement, particularly, the discourse of civil rights, which they have also connected to, as the other previous guests have stated, to human rights struggles in Brazil, particularly, the focus on the struggle against the genocide, the mass genocide of blacks through police abuse, through land eviction, forced sterilization, that have also impacted black Brazilians.

Also, the black civil rights movement in the U.S. such as - even the Black Panther Party has also impacted Brazilians and the way they wage politics today, particularly, are focused on positive self-affirmation, a positive sense of self as black people, black pride and so forth. So I do think that blacks have been inspired by the U.S. civil rights movement, and also - even cultural movements such as what there be today hip-hop. The hip-hop movement in Brazil is quite strong, is quite political, and it has impacted young men and women who are incarcerated and are also in urban communities and, certainly, the language of citizenship that African-Americans have focused on have impacted the Brazilians.

But I do think it's important to focus on the fact that in similar ways that U.S. civil rights struggles have impacted Brazilian discourse, certainly Brazilians focused on achieving the goal of racial democracy has also impacted how African-Americans themselves have thought about civil rights in this country. So I do think it's a two-way conversation that needs to be remembered.

African-Americans, historically, have looked to Brazil as a model of racial democracy even when I do believe that racial democracy was being misunderstood in Brazil. Scholars like Dubois and many others went to Brazil to see what was going on that was working and in the same way that UNESCO certainly went to Brazil to look to see what was working in Brazil that they could prevent another Holocaust from happening. So I do think that is a two-way dialogue.

CHIDEYA: Let me go to you, Peter. Can you give us a very specific example from one nation, since you worked with many different nations, of where you see progress being made?

Dr. TAKIRAMBUDDE: Well, South Africa itself - South Africa was dominated by racial minority until '94 when the (unintelligible) in media, a transition, which was ushered by a non-racial majority-based constitution, which had terminated the racial segregation which had pervaded South Africa's landscape, and made a media breakthrough in terms of equal rights protection. South Africa has, since '94, consolidated its democracy. It has the most - one of the most liberal constitutions in the world.

CHIDEYA: So Peter, let me just jump in. Lucky Dube, internationally known reggae star, was killed in a carjacking, an apparent carjacking. Some people who look at South Africa say, yes, it's got this great constitution, but it still has so much inequality, people are not feeling the benefit of that. How would you address that?

Dr. TAKIRAMBUDDE: Well, I think it would be - I think it would be an inappropriate to pass judgment on South Africa's experience because of the possibility, of the fact that a reggae star was killed by criminals.

Yes, there are still people who have not fully benefited from the post-apartheid government (unintelligible). And a lot needs to be done in terms of access to basic services, education, health, water, electricity, housing and so on.

But nonetheless, it is quite clear that the government in South Africa has made tremendous strides. I think in the last 30 years, probably, close to about 1 million people have been pulled out of poverty and are now moving into middle-class lifestyle.


Gepsie, let me turn to you. The same question - I mean, in some ways, you're dealing with two different constituencies, Haitians…

Ms. METELLUS: Absolutely.

CHIDEYA: …Americans and Haitians.

Ms. METELLUS: Absolutely.

CHIDEYA: What are - give me one success story.

Ms. METELLUS: To the (unintelligible) as well. What success story?

CHIDEYA: Yeah. Give me one success story.

Ms. METELLUS: Related to what? To a success locally?

CHIDEYA: Oh, yeah. I see - how about here with Haitian Americans in the United States?

Ms. METELLUS: In terms of (unintelligible).

CHIDEYA: Something that's…

Ms. METELLUS: I'm not sure following the question.

CHIDEYA: …a civil rights or human rights advance for the community in the U.S., or if you choose, in Haiti.

Ms. METELLUS: Okay. I would imagine civil rights advance for Haitians in this - in the U.S context would be an issue that is critical for, you know, for Haitian immigrants. And that would be around immigrant rights and certain immigrant benefits, all right?

I think that we have had to learn to articulate this issue and frame it, you know, in the context of basic human rights. Well, there has - there have been certain advances. There have been certain successes in the form of positive legislation, legislation that does, in fact, stabilize some Haitian immigrants.

But, you know, there's a lot of work to be done still, okay? And so if you look at the critical issue for Haitians in this country and if you want to frame that critical issue in the context of a civil right issue, that would be in my opinion, something that most people would agree with.

CHIDEYA: All right. Gepsie…

Ms. METELLUS: And so…

CHIDEYA: We're going to have to end there. Thank you all.

Gepsie Metellus is from the Haitian Neighborhood Center Sant La in Miami, Florida, joined us from WLRN in Miami. We had Peter Takirambudde of Human Rights Watch, and Keisha-Khan Perry, assistant professor of Africana studies at Brown University, joined us from University Park, Pennsylvania.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.